Jump to content
Game-Labs Forum

Fishing with Sailing ships | History & Methods


Recommended Posts

The origins of Commercial Fishing in the UK

Sailing vessels have been used for fishing for around 3-4,000 years ( earliest recorded in Egypt I think ) but it wasn't until the middle ages that great fleets of sail driven vessels began to dominate our coastal and distant waters. Initially these vessels fished with long lines of baited hooks fishing for Cod , Haddock and Halibut ( fished on the bottom anchored at each end ) eventually using long drift nets fished near the surface for Herring , Pilchards and Sardines.

The Beam trawl was first experimented with in the 1300's but didn't come into great use until the 1700's when the fleets of beam trawlers were sailing from Brixham and most of the South Coast of Englands ports. The Brixham fleets worked their way around from the English Channel grounds into the North Sea eventually finding the rich fishing grounds of the Dogger Bank which was soon called the "Silver Pits" because of the scales of the fish on the boats shining on the hull as they sailed into Whitby or Scarborough to land. It took the advent of the Steam Railways reaching Hull and Grimsby to push the docks owners into building fish docks and markets attracting the bulk of the Sailing Trawler fleets. 
Sailing-trawl-gear.jpg Sailing-trawl-gear-2.jpg

There are a great many different types of Sailing Drifter ( Cornish vessels differed from Brixham vessels which in turn were different to the Humber or Scottish fleets ) so I will not cover these here. The sailing drifters started from about 30ft ( NE of Scotland these were called Yawls ) and these boats didn't follow the Herring around the coast in the same way the larger vessels did , they fished the Herring only when they were within 30nm of their home port and fished with creels ( pots ) for Lobsters and Brown Crab ( Edible Crab or in Scotland they call them Partins ) and small versions of long lines for Haddock and Cod over the winter months. The Sailing Drifters over 45ft would follow the Shoals of Herring around the North Sea and around the West Coast of Scotland and down into the Irish Sea.

The Season would start mid May to Early June with the Herring being caught up around the Shetland Islands / Orkney Islands. By the end of July the Herring had migrated South and was being caught off the Buchan Coast ( NE from Fraserburgh to SE from Arbroath ). This fishery lasted until late August when the fleet would sail en-mass down to Great Yarmouth / Lowestoft for the Autumn fishery lasting until the end of October. The Scottish boats then sailed back North and West to fish in the Minch and around the Outer Hebrides and down into the Irish Sea until December / January when the fleet would head home to repair nets , sails and the vessels ( including a much needed paint ) before fishing with longlines for 1 or 2 months whilst waiting for the Herring Season to come around again. 
Driftnet1.jpg Driftnet2.jpg Driftnet3.jpg
The Humber ports sent sailing longliners all the way to Canada's Grand Banks in the 1700's and they fished all around Greenland , Iceland and Faroes. These vessels either split the Cod and salted them to preserve them or they had what would now be called a Vivier hold ( originally called Well Boats their fish holds were sealed fore and aft bulkheads with rows of holes in the sides of the hull to let seawater circulate to keep the fish alive so Cod caught off Canada would still be alive when landed in the UK ).
Fishing Vessel of this time period:

Dogger (boat)


The dogger was a form of fishing boat, described as early as the fourteenth century, that commonly operated in theNorth Sea. Originally single masted, in the seventeenth century, doggers were used with two masts. They were largely used for fishing for cod by rod and line. Dutch boats were common in the North Sea, and the word dogger was given to the rich fishing grounds where they often fished, which became known as the Dogger Bank. The sea area in turn gave its name to the later design of boat that commonly fished that area, and so became associated with this specific design rather than the generic Dutch trawlers.


The dogger was a development of the ketch. It was gaff-rigged on the main-mast, and carried a lugsail on the mizzen, with two jibs on a long bowsprit. The boats were generally short, wide-beamed and small, and carried out trawling or line fishing on the Dogger Bank. The name dogger was practically synonymous with ketch from the early seventeenth century, until the ketch began to increase in size during the period, eventually rising above 50 tons in the middle of the century.

Doggers were considerably smaller vessels in comparison, usually displacing around 13 tonnes, and carrying around a tonne of bait, three tonnes of salt, and half a tonne each of food and firewood for the crew. Around six tonnes of fish could therefore be carried. They would generally have been around 15 metres long, with a maximum beam of 4.5 metres, and a draught of about 1.5 metres. They had a rudder rather than a steering oar and high sides. A decked area forward probably provided limited accommodation for the crew, as well as a storage and cooking area, with a similar area aft. There would have been two small anchors, and one main anchor to allow for extended periods fishing in the same spot, in waters up to 18 metres deep. The dogger would also have carried a small open boat to maintain the lines and row ashore.


Doggers were slow but sturdy vessels, capable of fishing in the rough conditions of the North Sea. Some doggers were even used as military vessels, and fitted with cannon. The Royal Navy was one such operator, using doggers as support vessels during the seventeenth century. They could also be used for short trading voyages, ranging into the English Channel. In 1658, during the English Civil War, the Parliamentary commander of the ship Andrew, a man named W. Batten, wrote to his superior:
Sir, I believe the castle of Pendennis will not be long out of our hands; a dogger boat with four guns I have taken, where of one Kedgwin of Penzant was captain, a notable active knave against the Parliament, and had the King's commission; and now would fain be a merchant man, and was balasted with salt and had divers letters in her for Pendennis castle...

Herring buss

A herring buss (Dutch: Haringbuis) was a type of seagoing fishing vessel, used by Dutch and Flemish herring fishermen in the 15th through early 19th centuries.

The buss ship type has a long history. It was already known around the time of the Crusades in the Mediterranean as a cargo vessel (called buzza, bucia or bucius), and we see it around 1000 AD as a more robust development of the Viking longship in Scandinavia, known as a bǘza. The Dutch Buis was probably developed from this Scandinavian ship type.

The Buis was first adapted for use as a fishing vessel in the Netherlands, after the invention of gibbing made it possible to preserve herring at sea. This made longer voyages feasible, and hence enabled Dutch fishermen to follow the herring shoals far from the coasts. The first herring buss was probably built in Hoorn around 1415. The last one was built in Vlaardingen in 1841.
The ship was about 20 meters in length and displaced between 60 and 100 tons. The ratio of length to beam was between 2.5:1 and 4.5:1, which made for a relatively nimble ship, though still sufficiently stable to be seaworthy. It was a round-bilged keel ship with a round bow and stern, the latter relatively high, and with a gallery. The broad deck provided space to process the catch on board.
The ship had two or three masts. The mainmast and foremast (if present) could be lowered during fishing, leaving only the mizzen mast upright. It was square rigged on the main mast, with a gaff rig on the mizzen. It had a long bow sprit with jibboom and up to threeheadsails. The main course and topsail could be reefed.

Herring fleets
The ships sailed in large fleets of 400 to 500 ships to the fishing grounds at the Dogger Bank and the Shetland isles. They were usually escorted by naval vessels, because the English looked askance at what they considered "poaching" in waters they claimed, and were prone to arrest unescorted Dutch fishing vessels. In wartime the risk of fishing vessels being taken by privateers was also large.

The fleet would stay at sea for weeks at a time. The catch would sometimes be brought home by special ships (calledventjagers) while the fleet would still be at sea (the picture at the top shows a ventjager in the distance).
The busses used long drift nets to catch the herring. Such nets hang like curtains across the travel paths of the herring schools. The fish would catch with their gills behind the meshes of the net (which is therefore a type of gillnet). The nets would be taken aboard at night and then the crews of eighteen to thirty men would start the gibbing, salting and barrelling immediately.
There would be three to four voyages per season (depending on the weather and the catch). In the off-season the busses were used as normal cargo vessels, for instance to transport grain from the Baltic, or salt from Portugal. This multi-mode business model made the Great Fishery (as the herring fishery was called) especially profitable, as there was far less downtime than with exclusive use as fishing vessel.



PS: If you have something to add to this topic or you miss sth. feel free to post it below.  ;)



Edited by Obinotus
  • Like 16
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Good post and as an side the fishing industry off Newfoundland was important to early pirates like Peter Easton and later Caribbean pirates as they would sail up to the very active fishing operations taking place off the coast of Newfoundland and would recruit or press fisherman into working in their crews. Some would also capture appropriate fishing vessels for their use.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It is simply amazing the things that you can learn in the Naval Action forums.  FANTASTIC!  I wonder if the Developers are seeing the depth of esoteric historical knowledge that their customer base (and this is just the Alpha customer base!) bring to this product.


I can get lost for hours just reading the forums.  Thanks to all of you for providing this stuff!  Whether is 1700 - 1800' ballistics of Naval guns, or how to sail a square rigger, somewhere in these forums we have answers.  Hell, we've even learned about Kraken's....I know....subject locked.


Please, keep it up!




Link to comment
Share on other sites

The English really used beam trawlers as early as the 18th century?


It was well into the 19th century before Yankee fishermen started even using tub trawls, and these methods were considered borderline immoral because of the strain they put on the fisheries.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...
Tuna Fisheries in the Gulf of Bandol (France)

By J. Vernet in 1754.


At bottom, we see a cargo ship at anchor in the background on the left there with another cargo ship under sail. And on the right it is a tartan.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

The English really used beam trawlers as early as the 18th century?


It was well into the 19th century before Yankee fishermen started even using tub trawls, and these methods were considered borderline immoral because of the strain they put on the fisheries.


"Where in creeks and havens of the sea there used to be plenteous fishing, to the profit of the Kingdom, certain fishermen for several years past have subtily contrived an instrument called ‘wondyrechaun’..." - a beam trawl of 'modern' design with a 10ft beam, 18ft net length, weighted groundlines, the works - starts a petition to ban their use...presented to Parliament in 1376. Bans were introduced, two men were executed in 1583 for using trawls with metal ground chains. Taken from Edgar J March's wonder Sailing Trawlers and Davis' An Account of the Fishing Gear of England and Wales. So the technology was there, and was just waiting for the development of a powerful enough vessel to be taken offshore, which seems to have happened through the 18th Century, for truly modern deep-sea beam trawling to be born.


Brixham, on the South Devon coast of the UK, was the largest fishing port of Medieval England; by 1635 the Dutch (other notable users trawls as in the first post) had paid the Crown £30,000 for fishing rights, and Brixham was a frequent market for them; by about 1780 Brixham was home of around seven 'deep sea' trawlers, at least three of which were known to fish east of Dungeness; giving evidence to Parliament in 1833, a Brixham fisherman called Walter Smith said he had been fishing (trawling) as far as Dover since before the French Revolution, and worked out of Sunderland, Durham and Hartlepool amongst others by 1830.


March also gives plans for a Brixham beam trawler of the early 19th Century (this is from memory I'm afraid, I don't have a copy to hand) as well as at least one photo of a Brixham boat of about that vintage. Gaff cutter, very full forward (even by 'cod's head and mackerel tail' standards), fully decked, about 35ft LoD. By the 1860s the cutters were getting above 70ft on deck, and 40 tons, and by the 1870s were starting to be re-rigged and built as gaff ketches. The 'Brixham Trawler' as a type refers to these fairly large, incredibly powerful gaff ketches developed in the mid 19th Century and honed for the next 50 years or more.


A Google image search would give plenty of good hits, but this is too lovely a photo to pass over. The ketch here is Galmpton-built (just over the hill from Brixham on the river Dart) trawler Leader LT474, 1892, the brigantine the engineless trading vessel Tres Hombres of http://fairtransport.eu/:






From 'The Ports, Harbours, Watering-places and Picturesque Scenery of Great Britain' c.1830 comes the following equally lovely engraving and caption:



(large version here)

"Here busy boats are seen: some overhaul / Their loaded nets; some shoot the lightened trawl; / And, while their drags the slimy bottom sweep, / Stealthily o'er the face o' the waters creep;While some make sail, and singly or togetherFurrow the sea with merry wind and weather."

W. Stewart Rose.


"In the Engraving of Brixham Quay, from a painting by Edward Duncan, the view is taken from the eastward. To the right, from the end of the pier, several of the larger class of fishing vessels belonging to the place are perceived lying aground; while, further in the harbour, a merchant brig is seen discharging her cargo. In the foreground, to the left, the attention of a group appears to be engaged by a small ship which a young fisherman holds in his hands.

Brixham lies about a mile and a half to the westward of Berry Head, the southern extremity of Torbay, in the county of Devon, and is about twenty-eight miles south of Exeter, and one hundred and ninety-eight west-south-west of London. As a fishing town, Brixham is one of the most considerable in the kingdom. The total number of fishing vessels belonging to the place is nearly two hundred, of which, about one hundred and ten are from thirty to forty tons burden, and the rest from six to eighteen tons. Besides these, there are several yawls and smaller boats which are employed in the fishery near the shore. For years past about seventy of the larger class of fishing vessels have been accustomed to proceed to Ramsgate, for the purpose of catching fish in the North Sea for the supply of the London market. They usually leave Brixham in November and December, and return again towards the latter end of June. The Brixham fishermen send a great quantity of fish to the Exeter, Bath, Plymouth, and Bristol markets. The principal fish which they take are cod, ling, conger-eels, turbot, whitings, hake, soles, skate and plaice, with herring and mackerel in the season. A quantity of whitings are generally salted and dried at Brixham. On the coast of Devonshire dried whitings are called "buckhorn," a name sufficiently expressive of their hardness and insipidity. Besides the vessels employed in the fishery, there are ships belonging to Brixham which are chiefly engaged in the West India, Mediterranean, and coasting trades. A weekly market, with a market-house at the water-side, was established here in 1799, and in 1804 a stone pier of great strength was erected at the expense of the nation. The population of the place is about 5,000. One of the most memorable events in its history is the landing there of William Prince of Orange, afterwards William III., on the 5th of November, 1688. The view of Torbay, from the cliffs above the town, is in the highest degree interesting, especially when enlivened, as it frequently is, by a fleet of fishing-boats dotting its placid waters, and stretching far into the British Channel."



So, maybe not "the English" as a body, but the men of Brixham were certainly on their way to the proper 'modern' deepwater sailing fishing vessel through the 18th Century. Through the 19th Century the spread of Brixham men and boats lead to the adoption of the type and technique firstly around the UK through the mid-19th C and then by all NW European major fishing fleets towards the end of the century. The German government ordered 10 Brixham boats to form the kernel of their modern trawling fleet; Sweden, Norway and Denmark all bought large numbers of English trawlers at the end of their useful life of 0 years or so of fishing. I should probably point out that I spent a few formative years working on Brixham-built sailing trawlers, although not fishing them, and may or not be a little biased as to Brixham's claim to be the mother of all deep-sea fisheries or to what a wonderful vessel the fully-realised Brixham trawler became. The yards of Brixham were still building sailing trawlers 'till almost 1930. The place, the largest Medieval fishery, is still one of the biggest fishing ports of the UK, long after most other trawler stations have lost their fleets. 


I must try to get out more...



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Is that a single tan-bark square sail on the first picture?  Of course, the flags are all different as well, so I wonder if it's a different nation than the French whalers around it, or if it just designated the flagship of the fleet.


What ship are you referring to?  I see Dutch ships, but no French ships.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The tan bark is just referring to the color of the sail, not the rigging or design.  I mention it primarily because I have read a discussion here before (can't find it quickly) about possible upgrades in the open world, including hull color and possibly sail color.  Tan bark sails were more expensive, due to the extra process of rubbing the bark in to the sails, but they generally lasted longer than plain white canvas sails (at least for the smaller fishing boats that would often be seen with them).  However, the Royal Navy tested them and decided not to adopt the process for their ships, and often they didn't catch on for larger ships (likely due to their expense and the number of sails for a larger craft vs. a few sails for a smaller boat).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...
Painting by my late Uncle Arthur Dean of Zulu class fishing boats off the Berwickshire coast, likely close to Eyemouth Harbour painted around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. I have a lot more of his work, mainly of the fishing fleet around that area and seascapes of the coast.

Zulu Fishing Boats

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 months later...

Good post and as an side the fishing industry off Newfoundland was important to early pirates like Peter Easton and later Caribbean pirates as they would sail up to the very active fishing operations taking place off the coast of Newfoundland and would recruit or press fisherman into working in their crews. Some would also capture appropriate fishing vessels for their use.


I found this very interesting a little bit history about fishing in Newfoundland --> http://alexhickey.com/2014/06/08/the-oceangoing-skinners-of-st-jacques/




Typical Schooner used to fish the Newfoundland Grand Banks c1890 – Public Domain

Edited by Obinotus
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Let's not forget the Chesapeake bay here given that as far as I know Maryland still requires sail powered craft for oyster harvesting. Early boat types used on the bay were the Pungy and Bugeye which were superseded by the skipjack.


This particular skipjack was built near my uncles home in Urbanna Virginia.



Edited by Spork
  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here on the West Coast of North America. They used these little guys to fish salmon here is an article and a video about an American boat built in Oregon used in Alaska . They were used up and down the West Coast. We have a Shipyard ,britannia heritage shipyard, here in Steveston that builds them like they used to use on the Fraser river at the turn of the century. 














Ok then ill add on i was looking around and i found this hilarious 1921 Government of Canada how salmon are caught video its relevant (kinda) and also a silent movie set to a enjoyable piano medley lol 





Ok ill make up for that will some good old fishing boat racing

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.
Note: Your post will require moderator approval before it will be visible.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...